I Yet Live

1. I’m not dead, but I have been very busy.

2. I’ve now completely forgotten what I’d originally intended to write about.

3. When I heard that Richard Matheson had died this week, I decided to write about his influence on fantasists in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

4. Then I read this, which says it all perfectly.

5. So I thought I’d talk about a great writer who hasn’t died — Robert Sheckley.

6. It turns out that Sheckley died a while ago, which I knew at the time but somehow forgot.

7. With no time to write something new, I edited a book review.

8. I don’t want to post the book review without a scan of the cover, and I believe that I mentioned something about a complete lack of time.

9. DOMA got struck down, which has nothing to do with the absence of a post from me this week but is totally awesome.

10. I’m still not caught up at work, so I have no time to post anything coherent.

11. I bought three (3) versions of the movie poster for “Kingdom of the Spiders”. Intentionally.

12. On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love said to me: “It’s the beginning of summer; you’re not allowed to talk about that.”

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Book Review: Red Planet (Russ Winterbotham, 1962)

Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham, is in many ways typical of science fiction in the decade leading up to the Moon landing, but its theme of humans in space being little more than beasts and its charmingly goofy aliens have earned it a place in my jaded little heart.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The events of the novel are narrated by Bill Drake, who is one of five astronauts already selected for the historic mission to Mars. He begins the tale as the final candidate for the sixth position completes his final test. All he has to do is land, and he’ll have earned his way onto the crew of the Jehad (the rather unfortunate name of the ship designed for the mission).

To everyone’s dismay, the test goes horribly wrong. The candidate sustains a serious injury and, as the Jehad is to launch within days, cannot join the crew. Although the mission could be accomplished by a crew of five, the commander (Dr. Spartan) insists that they need a full complement. There is, however, no time to fully train another astronaut for the mission. Unless…

There is one other person who is fully qualified, who has taken every test and worked closely with Dr. Spartan on the project. The only hitch is that this astronaut is… A WOMAN! Public sentiment would be very much against sending an unmarried woman on a two-year mission with five men, we’re told, and the space program can’t afford to lose popular support.

The solution is gloriously absurd. If she marries a member of the crew, then somehow everything is copacetic. With her limited selection of grooms, Gail Loring chooses Bill Drake. She makes it clear that this is a marriage only for creating the illusion of respectability, which does nothing to dim Drake’s hopes of making the union real.

The rest of the story largely concerns the struggle for “ownership” of Gail Loring. There’s no other way to put it. The men of the Jehad are incapable of sharing space with a woman without fighting over her.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the five men, only three join the contest to try to “win” Loring — one is too perfect and noble to do anything untoward and another too craven. Drake, of course, tells us that he’s only trying to protect her from the others.

There are a lot of ways to die in space, and life requires vigilance and discipline. Some of the best speculative fiction from the mid-1900s used this struggle against the extreme environment as their central plots. Teamwork and ingenuity are emphasized as the key to survival. Where this book works best is in reversing this formula. One of the “suitors” begins to use the perils of the journey to eliminate his rivals. The dangers of the expedition are amplified by the division and mounting paranoia of the crew.

Then they land on Mars, and the plot takes a detour to crazy town.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Like many since H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, Winterbotham portrays Mars as a world past its prime. Life can be sustained only at the bottom of deep channels, and it is deadly to outsiders; ruined cities silently crumble amid the wastelands of the surface; and the fallen descendents of the builders of Martian culture are as aggressive as they are incredibly silly.

Picture a green ball, about the size of the bottom tier of a snowman. Add spindly limbs and a growth on top that resembles a beanie with a radar dish. Picture rows of them holding hands, sharing their generated electricity to produce a lightning bolt. Try to take the threat seriously.

With this story, Winterbotham managed to combine all of the best and worst of the science fiction of the time. The admission of female accomplishment while maintaining repressive sexual politics is all too common for the era. The exceptional woman can be equal, but she really just wants to make house. Racial equality is mentioned, but the scope of it is limited to white Europeans. It’s a frustrating mix of nascent ideas and recycled plot points — a weird specimen of pulp adventure that fascinates me with its contradictions.

I can’t say I recommend Red Planet, but if you happen to stumble on a copy, have a taste for the less conventionally good, and can put up with a work so rooted in its time, you could pass a lazy afternoon with it.

My Taste for the Tasteless

I’m currently reading “Euro Horror”, by Ian Olney, the first section of which offers stacking explanations for the exclusion from Film Studies of the European horror films from the 1950s to 1980s. It’s a persuasive set of arguments that lead to the standard critical conclusion; these movies are disposable, excessive crap. Presumably, Olney will refute this stance in the remaining chapters, but as I’m a slow reader it may be some time before I find out.

Something else in Olney’s foundational arguments caught my attention, causing me to reflect on my own appetite for these films. Almost as an afterthought (although perhaps to be expanded on later), Olney suggests that the fans’ consumption of these movies is an almost political rejection of the current popular culture for that of a previous time and place. I’ll have to hope that he provides an elaboration of this statement, but until I read that far I’m left with my own stumbling thoughts on the subject.

Certainly, I watch the works of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Amando de Ossorio, Jorge Grau, Lucio Fulci and so many others of the period because I’m finding something in them that I’ve not seen elsewhere. It could be a submerged room, a garishly lit hallway, a face made of cake splattered on a subway windshield, corpses replaced by mannequins, or skeletal killers in robes fumbling after victims.

It’s also true that I’ve rarely found pleasure in the pop culture milieu in which I live. Sure, I loved “The Avengers” and watched almost every Harry Potter movie, but I’m talking about the parade of action, suspense, drama, comedy, and even horror releases that come out each year to be consumed and then quickly forgotten. They’re filled with things don’t interest me, that I can find anywhere.

I think it’s the very datedness of the films discussed in “Euro Horror” that appeals to me. When I watch these movies I see a time when these images alternately shocked and calmed the audience. What degree of misogyny is being presented to the audience as acceptable or even desired? What degree of suggested or visualized trauma is chosen to elicit a reaction? At what point is narrative discarded in favor of grabbing the viewer by the viscera?

For all I know, that’s what Olney meant. All I know is that my tolerance for disposable media increases as its immediacy fades. Maybe in another 20-30 years I’ll be more interested in today’s crap.

Neko Pee-Pee Mode

We call him The Piddler.

Most of the time, he wears the disguise of an ordinary (if pudgy) house cat named Bogart. Generally an agreeable cat, he loves to have his chest rubbed, to lie on or near us, and most especially to be fed. He also loves pinning the other cats to the floor until they scream, which isn’t so agreeable actually.

Bogart is very attached to us, and he doesn’t like to stray very far away from our vicinity. While we’re home, he sticks to us like cute and ineffective glue. It’s all rather endearing, until The Piddler emerges.

Is he Bogart, or is he The Piddler? Either way, he's awfully cute!

The Piddler in his guise as Bogart, an ordinary housecat.

The Piddler sees a [shirt, bag, box, stack of papers, what have you] and thinks: “I could go two rooms over to relieve myself in the litter box, or I could use this perfectly acceptable substitute right here by the monkeys.”

Then feelings get hurt all around.

We’ve learned to keep things off the floor and to not let him crawl into the drier while we’re folding clothes. We keep the litter clean and full. For the overwhelming majority of the time this keeps The Piddler at bay, but he’s ready to be released at any time.

There’s a chair that used to sit in the corner of the hallway that leads to the stairs. The litter boxes are right around the corner. The chair contained a clothes basket that aspired to Shel Silverstein levels of being overfilled. When we spent a weekend picking up for our cleaner’s first visit, we had left that as the forward line of our retreating clutter.

The cleaner decided to move the chair into our dining room, and she put the laundry basket on the floor.

You see where this is going, yes? Despite three years of dealing with The Piddler, I was taken completely by surprise.

While I stood in the hallway, Bogart started to scale the stack of clothes.

“Hee!” I thought. “Lookit ‘im climb!”

Bogart reached the top and looked proud of himself.

“King of the hill!” I thought.

“Hey, Wendi!” I called. “Lookit Bogie!”

She rounded the corner as The Piddler started his business. He looked offended when she dragged him to the litter box.

As I cleaned up, I could only reflect that I’d be doomed if cute aliens ever invade.

“Lookit their little toeses!” I’d exclaim, seconds before their lasers sliced me into seared deli meat. At least I’d die stupid and happy.

Sleep Talker

Wendi came up to bed late on Saturday. Still recovering from an exhausting week, I’d passed out with my head still an inch away from the pillow. Still, when Wendi joined me an hour or so later, I woke up enough to have a brief conversation with her before returning to my previously scheduled snoring.

I found out about our talk the next night, when I asked Wendi when she’d come to bed. She laughed and remarked “I told you that you wouldn’t remember.”

This isn’t uncommon for me, to operate in a state just below consciousness. Usually I just stare at people — not in the “Paranormal Activity” demon possession manner that involves hours of dedicated looming, but in a peevish “who interrupts my slumber” way. It’s a wonder, really, that I don’t have cats thrown at me more often.

I’ve been an “active” sleeper my whole life. As a pre-teen, I once came downstairs and talked to my parents when they came home late. Then, having never woken up, I went back to bed. When they told me about it the next day, I’d been incredulous.

I’m curious what all I get up to in my sleep. Do I walk around? Play with the cats? Watch movies? I’m tempted to get a nanny cam to record my nocturnal life, but I’m afraid of finding out how much the cats abuse me. I know they steal my pillow, the furry bastards.

Maybe I can train myself to clean the library in my sleep. Or maybe, you know, sleep.